Leadership agility – now is the time to pick up the pace further

Much has been said about the role of Leadership in times of crisis. The pandemic provided the opportunity for the theories to be tested in practice.  The ability of organisational systems to ‘flex and adapt at pace’ with the roll out of agile working arrangements such as part time working, compressed hours, working from home, often circumventing ridged policies and procedures allowing for more pragmatic and fluid solutions, that took account of both the individual needs and business imperatives; was nothing short of extraordinary.

The gauntlet COVID-19 laid down was a ‘real time’ test of the agility of organisational systems, processes and practices and how adaptive organisational cultures could be in response to this highly disruptive event. Local authorities rose to the challenge by moving at pace and setting aside (even if only temporarily) cumbersome processes, creating agile working and covid safe environments, promoting enhanced collaborative multi agency and/or disciplined working to continue to deliver essential services without compromising quality. This was only possible with the cooperation of staff, members and broader stakeholders.

In the midst of this effort, we saw distributed leadership in action. For instance, staff working from home were (generally) given more autonomy to allow them to choose how they juggled the varying demands they faced.  Those who were required on site also worked differently, with the introduction of new rota systems, and additional responsibilities including equality, diversity and inclusion and health and safety considerations for others, their families and themselves.

In this context, ‘leadership’ and the way staff have been treated will be a defining feature in relation to attraction, recruitment and retention. In particular, how supported, engaged, protected and respected staff felt during this time when the traditional operating models of leadership, management, performance monitoring were inadequate and phrases such as ‘new ways of working, work life balance, and wellbeing’ took on a whole new meaning.

Turning back to recruitment and retention, as we come out of lockdown, organisations who invested in their people, enabled them to be part of the decision-making process, and continue to give them a voice in relation to learning the lessons of COVID-19 will doubly benefit.

Those who build back better with the development of more inclusive organisational cultural structures and systems will be able to better measure their return of investment in staff, especially in relation to equality, diversity and inclusion, access to resources and wellbeing.

Those who have supported their staff, took action to manage workloads, avoid fatigue, and online presenteeism and extended employ assistance to address increased anxiety whilst also supporting wellbeing, will be the ones with a positive stories in terms of engagement, loyalty and retention.

Some of these stories will capture how these ‘soft’ interventions changed the psychological contract, how trust and affording more autonomy resulted in staff themselves, choosing to work across disciplinary areas and some moving from low to high demand areas for the benefit of their colleagues, stakeholders and their organisations.

Contrary to this, it can be argued that organisations that were inflexible, failed to trust their staff, and focused on presenteeism rather than productivity and outcomes, will be potentially faced wit the worst retention issues.  This is because, although as stated in The State of the American Manager: Analytics and Advice for Leaders (published in 2015 and based on research in 195 countries) that employees leave their managers not their organisations, the prevailing organisational culture is role modeled by the managers and the leader(s) who preside over them.

This reinforces a previous thought piece that ‘workplace culture, trust and better workforce engagement’ are the tangible signals that reflect the values of the leadership and managers.  In essence, these dynamics emphasise the importance of leadership; how you lead in a crisis and how you treat people matters, not least because it has a big influence on whether people are motivated to stay or leave an organization, give of their best or just do their jobs!

Charlotte Croffie is Partner with GatenbySanderson’s Executive Search Practice

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